Stopping the Spread of Communism

by Don Boudreaux on August 8, 2014

in Myths and Fallacies

One of the notions believed fervently by many Americans since at least the end of WWII until at least the collapse of the Soviet Union a quarter century ago is that the wise force of arms can and should be used to stop communism from spreading.

This notion is mistaken.  Communism is an idea, and ideas cannot be stopped with bullets or bombs or tanks or torture devices.  Nor can ideas be spread by such means.

Hollywood scriptwriters with a cartoonish view of reality – along with politicians eager to rouse the masses into sacrificing more treasure and liberties to the state – might depict communism or socialism (or some other ism) as something that Bad Guys impose on innocent victims.  The conclusion then becomes simple: arm the victims, or protect the victims with your own arms, to oust or stop the Bad Guys from inflicting their ism on the innocent victims.

In fact, though, communism becomes the policy of a society insofar, and only insofar, as the bulk of people in that society believe that communism is either desirable or at least unobjectionable.  Likewise capitalism.  Likewise Roman Catholicism.  Likewise Buddhism.  Likewise atheism.  Trying to stop the spread of communism with an army and navy is as senseless an endeavor as using such means to try to stop the spread of vegetarianism.  You can arrest, imprison, and execute some current peddlers of the doctrine, as well as current leaders who play prominent roles in supplying the manifestations of the doctrine.  But the only way to stop the idea is to kill the idea – and killing or forcibly silencing people who currently hold the idea is not at all the same as killing the idea itself.

Action movies and tv shows are made showing Good Guys preventing evil by corralling or killing Bad Guys.  If the Bad Guys are commissioners of mere animalistic acts of aggression such as murder or theft, then this simple Good Guy vs. Bad Guy scenario rings true enough.  But ideological and political doctrines are far more complicated.  They infuse people’s deepest thoughts, inspiring many to die for their beliefs, and countless others to sacrifice to one degree or another to see those ideas put into practice.  These ideas guide not only people’s conscious evaluations of situations and possibilities, but also people’s unconscious assessments and reactions.

“Our” government officials have an interest in portraying other governments or leaders – and these leaders’ devoted followers – as simple Bad Guys.  Evil people motivated by evil intentions.  Just as, say, an armed robber can effectively be prevented from unleashing harm on an innocent pedestrian if the Good Guy cop is nearby to intervene, with powerful-enough arms, on behalf of the innocent pedestrian, the people of country X can (it is imagined) be saved from being victimized by Bad Guy Commie (or Socialist, or Theocrat, or Whatever) if the Good Guy Government army is there to intervene on behalf of the innocent people of country X.  But the latter situation is not remotely like the former.

Communism, to the extent that it exists in a society, is a reflection of the reigning ideology, thoughts, beliefs about history, culture, rhetoric, and desires (however wrongheaded or factually mistaken) of the people of a society.  It is the same for any other social or economic system.  And thus, again, it is fantasy to suppose that the spread of communism is achieved by force of arms or that its spread can be halted by force of arms.

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